Guest of Honor by Lori Lindstrom

I stared out the train window and thought of what lay ahead. For a few weeks, this thirteen-year-old girl would live in a peaceful, worry-free home. A home like the ones my lucky friends lived in year-round.

I strained to decipher the cities the conductor called out: Bal’more, Noo’ork. The train pulled into the dark bellies of cities, and passengers came and went. A grimy diesel smell drifted through the opened doors. I breathed through my mouth at each stinky stop, grateful to be one city closer. 

The train stopped in Boston, and I got off. Outside the station sat the familiar light blue, 1965 Ford Galaxy. Grandma got out of the car and hugged me; I kissed Grandpa through his open window. 

“It’s so good to see you, Lori Lynn! Hasn’t she grown, Kusti?” Grandma asked.

“She sure has. I think she’s gotten prettier, too,” Grandpa beamed. 

I blushed. I slid my suitcase on the backseat, jumped in, and rested my arms on the back of their bench seat. 

“Tell us what’s new with you,” Grandma said, turning her head towards me. 

“Dad dropped me off at the train station at nine this morning…” I began.

Grandpa started the car and we headed to their town, 26 miles northwest of Boston. Once famous for a mill that produced the highest percentage of wool used for military uniforms for the Union Army during the Civil War and wool blankets during WWII closed in 1950 when synthetic fiber replaced wool. The mill housed Digital Equipment Corporation, yet Maynard remained a sleepy, little town.

Grandpa drove up the steep hill towards the green house with white trim and a wrap-around porch. 25 Maple Street. 

Grandpa stopped in front of their one-car garage, and I hopped out. I removed the lock, opened the doors, and Grandpa slowly inched the car in. Grandma unlocked the front door with a silver skeleton key, and we entered. 

In the foyer, pastel light streamed through a rectangular stained-glass window like those on every house on Maple Street. On the windowsill sat a tiny porcelain bell and a little porcelain kitten. I remembered how Grandma’s eyes welled up when my cousin and I handed her the gifts we bought at Woolworth’s on Main Street with the change she slipped us, whispering, “Don’t tell Grandpa.”

Minutes later, Grandpa slowly walked up the front steps and into the house.

Like prior visits, I sat at the wooden secretary, picked up the heavy, black phone, and dialed “O” on the rotary dial. 

“This is the operator. How may I help you?” 

“I’d like to make a person-to-person phone call.” 

“What number do you want to call?” 

“943-8291.” 

“Who would you like to talk to?”

“Lori Lindstrom,” I said.

The phone rang. 

“Hello,” my father said. 

“This is the operator. I’d like to make a person-to-person phone call. Is Lori Lindstrom there?”

“I’m sorry, Lori’s not here.” 

“Ok, thank you,” the operator said.

I hung up. Our code worked. Making long-distance phone calls was expensive.

Pastel, flowered wallpaper lined the curved, wooden staircase. To the right of the landing was a bathroom with a white, claw-footed bathtub with two faucets and a perfectly-angled back. A white porcelain sink with a rubber plug held by a silver chain sat below an oval mirror. I cupped my hands, ran them back and forth between the faucets, created the perfect temperature, and splashed my face.

My bedroom with wavy-glass windows and white, cotton curtains was across the hall. A vintage tube radio – my entertainment – sat on a table next to the wrought-iron bed. A tiny closet held simple, short-sleeved cotton dresses – many of the same pattern. On the floor sat a  pair of Grandma’s sensible, low-heeled, black shoes just like the pair she wore to town, except this pair had holes cut out for her bunions. 

The next day we drove to town. Though only three blocks away, it was always an adventure. Grandpa always drove; Grandma never learned how. Grandma wore a dress and support stockings she tied in a knot over each knee. We pulled into the parking lot, and I followed Grandma into the bank. The teller said, “Hi Emma! Who do you have with you today?” “That’s my granddaughter- Walter’s daughter. She’s here for a few weeks,” Grandma said. 

Our next stop was the food Co-op on Main Street. The conversation between the butcher and my grandmother was the same as the one at the bank. “Nice to meet you, Lori,” he said. I blushed. “Emma, what can I get you?” he asked. She pointed to a nicely-marbled steak behind the glass. He stuffed the trimmed steak into a metal grinder, turned the handle, and out came spaghetti-like pieces. He wrote the price on the wrapped package with a black crayon, handed it to Grandma, and said, “Have fun with your granddaughter, Emma.” 

The lady at the checkout counter followed suit. The cashier said, “Hi Lori,” and I said a demure “Hello.”    

Cashiers, butchers, and bankers in my hometown didn’t know who I was. Life in the DC suburbs was fast-paced, and everyone was in a hurry.

Grandpa waited patiently outside. He never shopped with us; it was too hard for him to walk. Grandpa was born with one hip out of socket, and despite traction surgery in his youth, he walked with a limp. He walked with a cane that he called a Finnish “keppi” the whole time I knew him. He drove because his car was jerry-rigged with hand controls. 

Grandma put away the groceries, leaving out the ingredients for supper. Always supper, never dinner. She shaped the beef into patties, patting and shaping them with her large hands. Hands like mine. She took her time preparing food; I took my time snapping the beans. She mixed a flour and water paste with the remnants in the pan and stirred until the gravy was a delightful fawn color. Grandpa walked to the head of the table, pulled the chair out, and plopped down in the chair with his stiff leg jutting straight out. Grandma brought the food to the table and passed it to me: the guest of honor.

After supper, we sat on the porch in search of a breeze. They sat in matching green wicker chairs. I sat on the porch swing, rocking back and forth with my feet periodically touching the grey, painted floorboards. We talked about visiting relatives the next day. And stopping at Erickson’s for a sundae served in a cardboard, boat-shaped container smothered with hot fudge and a cherry on top.

Before bed, my grandparents stood at the kitchen sink and removed their teeth. They dipped their toothbrushes in water, then baking soda and scrubbed. Two sets of teeth sat in two cups of water on an open shelf until morning. 

 A week into my visit, my favorite cousin arrived. We were so much alike. Thirteen, tall, blonde, blue-eyed, and boy crazy. Nancy felt more like a sister than a cousin. We shopped for pastel pink lipsticks by Yardley of London and Jughead and Archie comic books. We snuck out a bedroom window onto the roof but stopped after a neighbor spied us smoking and told on us. We wrote lyrics for a radio contest: “I love the Monkees and WBZ, wish they were part of my family tree.” 

Towards the end of Nancy’s visit, her mother, Aunt Milly, and her brothers, Charlie and Billy, arrived. On Sundays, we drove to Fort Pond, a gathering place for Finns and fellow Knights who were members of the Kalevala Society. My grandparents watched us swim in the murky, brown water from the shaded porch of the clubhouse. They sipped coffee, ate Nissu – a Finnish coffee bread -and spoke their native tongue. My cousins and I took turns standing on the large rock submerged offshore, yelling to them, “I found it!” They smiled and waved back.

The weeks passed quickly, and Nancy and her family left. I became somber as my departure date neared. The day I left, I said a silent goodbye to their house.

Grandpa pulled in front of the station. 

“Goodbye, Lori Lynn,” they said, their eyes as sad as mine. 

With a suitcase in one hand and a brown, bagged lunch in another, I walked into the station, bought my ticket, found the right track, and stepped aboard the hissing train. I slid my suitcase on the overhead rack, wiped my tears, and settled into my seat. 

The train lurched forward, and I headed home. I was about to doze off when it hit me. 

In a few hours, I’ll be invisible

The train arrived at Union Station. The clicking sound of my heels against the marble echoed through the cavernous building. Outside was our red VW bug with Dad inside.

Dad got out, smiled, and gave me a hug.

“How was your trip, kiddo?” he asked.

“It was great!” I said. 

“Tell me about it,” he said as he put my suitcase under the front hood. 

I told Dad about all the fun Nancy and I had. Who we visited. Who visited us. We visited his cousin, Edna and one of her horses kicked her daughter in the head, and her daughter’s ok. We swam at Fort Pond. We visited Grandma’s sisters and Grandpa’s brother and heard their native tongue. We helped Grandma hang up sheets on the clothesline. We walked past the neighborhood bathhouse and bought a loaf of bread or a quart of milk at the tiny market at the bottom of the hill. We went to the town dump with Grandpa and played checkers with him, and he hardly ever let us win. And I told him we didn’t win the radio contest.

“I might have gained weight from too many visits to Erikson’s,” I giggled. 

“Glad you had a nice time,” he said, smiling. 

He started the engine, took a deep breath, and shifted gears.   

“Your sister had another eye hemorrhage,” he said as he pulled into the street.

“It was a pretty bad one,” he continued.

“Oh no! How’s she doing?” I asked nervously.

“She’s pretty shaken up.” 

“When did it happen?” 

“Two days ago,” he said, slicking back his hair.

“Where’s she now?”

“She moved back home.”

“Oh,” I said, picking my cuticles.

We stared ahead. No more talk of my trip. 

We pulled in our driveway, and I’d forgotten about my trip. I slipped back into my familiar role. A role I’d played since birth: the healthy child with two chronically-ill siblings. 

I walked to the house, my steps slow, my feet heavy. Dad unlocked the door, and I walked inside. My dear older sister laid on the sofa, a black patch on one eye, surrounded by wadded-up tissues.

“Hi Cindi,” I said as I walked to her.  

“Hi, Lori. Did you have a good trip?” she asked, sniffling. 

“Yes. It was great.” 

“How are Grandma and Grandpa?” 

 “They’re fine. Just slowing down a bit.”

“Sorry you had another eye hemorrhage,” I said, fiddling with the straps of my purse.

 “Thank you,” she said, dabbing her eyes.

 A few seconds passed. 

“Well, I better unpack,” I said.

“Ok,” she said.

I walked upstairs, entered my bedroom, and plopped my suitcase on my twin bed. I unsnapped the locks, laid the suitcase flat, and unpacked.  

10 thoughts on “Guest of Honor by Lori Lindstrom”

  1. I was absolutely there with Lori Lynn. The story was beautiful tho sad that home was so hard. Wonderful piece.

  2. Excellent. I felt like I was right there with her during her travels and visits. I know the pain of a chronically ill sibling diverting all the attention away from you. I makes you invisible.

  3. A story so moving, and universal in that it captures that feeling of invisibility, and the love she feels for her family in spite of it. Well done!

  4. Thank you for sharing this beautiful story. The vivid details really pull me in to that time period. I remember Archie and Jughead comics and the older version of the Bug with the trunk in front. My brother had a red Bug too.
    Another great scene was the two people in front of the sink placing their teeth in two glasses. That was such a startle after the calm supper and soothing rocking in the porch.
    Just beautiful. Congratulations.

  5. Such a beautiful expression of a young girl in the 60s and the window of that experience we get to feel with the author. We all remember our own personal experiences in our early teens which are carved in our souls and this story allows the readers to open our window and explore. Very honest, touching, and important. Congratulations!

  6. Maple Street really comes alive to an unhurried time to be cherished. Those lazy, long summer days. Friendship with a cousin! A great escape from the hardship of two siblings with monumental health issues.
    Loved the Finnish get together at the (“murky”) water!
    Wonderful!
    Julie

  7. I was definitely on that trip with you. Your descriptions were detailed but somehow let me fill in details as I imagined them. Clearly a personal story and sad that it was so important because of how you felt at home. Love your work.

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